Fifa and the International Olympic Committee are discussing the prospect of extending the restriction on footballers who can compete at the Tokyo Games to allow under-24s players to get their chance at claiming a gold medal.
Football is one of the disciplines at the Olympics that allows professionals to compete, but as opposed to the likes of golf, tennis and basketball, Fifa age-regulate the men’s competition to restrict squads to under-23s plus three overage players, though the women’s game remains unrestricted.
Age-grade competitions over the last three years have been used to decide 14 of the 16 teams who will compete in Japan, with Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Germany and France among those set to feature. But the decision by the IOC to delay the Games by 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic has caused a problem for both the Olympic governing body and their footballing counterparts by potentially excluding players who have helped their team qualify for the Games.
“One of the interesting things with moving the dates is not only in football but in several sports there is a specific age regulation in place, be it a minimum age or a maximum age,” said the IOC’s sports minister Kit McConnell. “In some cases that’s designed to be for health and safety reasons, in others it’s to provide a specific age group, like in particular men’s football where we have the restriction on under-23s with the pool of players over that date.”
The rules, which are enforced by Fifa, initially meant that players who were born before 1 January 1997 would be excluded unless they are designated as one of the three overage players. Yet if that regulation remains unchanged, the deadline would move forward by a year and mean that those 23-year-olds who had been available for Tokyo 2020 selection would become ineligible.
As a result, talks are underway about changing the regulation and increasing it by a year in order to allow those players to compete.
“You can imagine that we’re only a few days after the decision to know when the Games are but we’re in discussions with each of the federations, including Fifa, where those age regulations are specified in the qualifying systems and we hope to finalise that in the next couple of weeks for everyone’s certainty,” added McConnell.
“So no decisions yet but you can imagine there’s a logic to looking at that and having the same athletes or teams that achieved the qualification place to be the ones taking part next year. But we need to confirm that with the respective international federations, including Fifa, in the next couple of weeks.”
When contacted by The Independent, a Fifa spokesperson said: “Fifa is working with relevant stakeholders to address all key matters related to the rescheduling of the Olympic football tournaments. Further information will follow in due course.”
Under the current regulations, Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, Everton’s Richarlison and Tottenham’s Juan Foyth would all miss out on the Olympic Games, as well as Bayern Munich’s Theo Hernandez, Lyon’s Houssem Aouar and Inter Milan’s Lautaro Martinez.
The final decision of who will make each squad remains with the individual nations, meaning those who have helped secure qualification have not guaranteed their place in Tokyo yet.
There are also fears that next season’s undoubtedly crammed schedule could see players pull out, with domestic and continental seasons likely to run deep into the summer before the rearranged European Championship and Copa America tournaments take place. However, the IOC have insisted that all 33 sporting events will take place to guarantee a full Olympics Games, meaning there will definitely be football in Japan next year.
“Yes absolutely,” said McConnell. “We’re looking at all sports, all events taking place in Tokyo next year. One of the real benefits of going to the summer next year is we have the maximum amount of preparation time possible, we know the athletes themselves are right now really challenged in their ability to train and prepare so putting the Games in the summer next year really maximises the opportunity for athletes, regardless of where they’re coming from and regardless of where they are in the various stages of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“It provides that maximum best opportunity for them to prepare on the field of play for Tokyo next year. So definitely from the sports perspective going forward it’s all sports, all events as per the planning for this year and the timing gives the maximum opportunity for the athletes to finish and fill those final remaining qualification places and equally to prepare as fairly and equally as possible.”